Ragna and Selma have made sandwiches. We pull off and go a few hundred meters down a dirt road and lunch royally, with a view of a farming valley. I even have a thermos of black coffee – thanks to Ragna’s foresight in buying three of them, one for her coffee with cream and one for Selma’s mate de coca.
We take particular delight in watching Selma see her first vicunas, and soon afterward her first alpacas. As we were, she’s enthralled. She leaves the car to photograph them – taking pictures we would have taken quite excitedly a few months ago, but which now fail even to draw us from the car, although through the window I shoot a couple of images of Selma shooting images of animals. We’re old hands, now.
It’s a pleasant drive. We pass a really photogenic lake, with a few vendors out selling local clothing; While Ragna and Selma inspect their goods, I’m staring at a bird flying straight overhead, then trying to capture the lake’s beauty in a photograph.
We seem to pass a dog lying beside the road about every kilometer or so, even in the middle of nowhere. Occasionally one chases us and barks, but most just lie there. There are so many of them – and so little else visible – that it becomes comical. As far as we can tell, the dogs around here are just bored, and like to lie by the road because at least something happens there – or perhaps, like the half-starved dog we met in the mountains above Arequipa, because cars mean people and people mean some possibility of something to eat.
We reach Juliaca late enough in the day that the sun is starting to paint in bright colors again, and there seem to be an extraordinary number of pictures I want to take, just driving through. Women in native garb and funny hats gossiping or walking with babies, people just doing whatever they’re doing on the street in late afternoon, and this once I’m envious of Ragna, who’s shooting away like crazy as we make our way through town. I’m determined to come back here some time and stay a night, so as to walk around – or maybe go around in a moto-taxi – early and late, shooting as I can on the streets. Whether Juliaca is particularly appealing for that or whether we are just passing through at the right time of day in the right season, I’ll have to let you know after further research.
We drive on, and shortly before Puno there’s a sign for “Sillustani” to the right. It’s a ruin, the name rings a vague sort of bell, and there are a bunch of taxis parked near the sign, so I pull off. “Shall we go to Sillustani?” “What’s Sillustani?” Ragna and Selma ask. “Something. I don’t know. But I think it was something,” I shrug. They are not vastly impressed, and we decide to ask the taxi drivers. We would probably give it a miss, but they tell us it’s just 15 km. away, a 10-minute drive, and insist that it is “bonito.” The sun hasn’t fallen too far yet.
It is 15 km. away, and a ten-minute drive for them; but for us it takes rather longer. They are not primarily interested in shooting photographs in the fine light of late afternoon. They have seen more than enough llamas, are quite familiar with the sorts of houses people here live in, and presumably have their own cuy castles; and when picturesque local residents smile and wave at them, they are not necessarily inclined to jam on the brakes, shoot a lot of videotape and photographs, and be shown the kitchens and the cuy castles and what-not. At least, I surmise they aren’t.
We, however, have all of these weaknesses and more, and it’s probably forty minutes before we approach Sillustani. Within about two minutes, we pass a walled home – with the traditional toros up top – with llamas tethered out front and a woman in an orange and white clothes waving at us as if we’re old friends. We stop to photograph the llamas, and she invites us in to see their place. An older couple is there too, and they show us where and how they cook, and a few implements they use in farming, and the palace they’ve built for their cuy.
Their house is just outside a town, Atuncolla, which we now drive through. Atuncolla is a small town off the main road now, but the Colla people once dominated the Lake Titicaca area. They were a warlike, Aymara-speaking tribe. They controlled this area for themselves, and later for the Inca. Later I will read in Garcilaso an account of the Inca’s conquest of them.
I should explain, perhaps, what I’ve called “cuy palaces.” I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that cuy – guinea pig – although a pampered pet in Europe or the U.S. is a culinary delicacy here. Since Inca times, it has been the special food for birthdays and similar special occasions, and folks keep live guinea pigs on hand for the purpose. In these mountains the custom is to build particularly elaborate . . . well, castles . . . for the little guys, and because that is not something one sees in Reykjavik or Brooklyn, these folks make sure to include the guinea pig castles in the tours they give us of their place.
As we drive on, we realize that many of the houses have people sitting in front of them, also colorfully dressed, also waving at us in a friendly way. Clearly this one town sees the Sillustani tourist stream as a pretty painless way to supplement their incomes. (In fact, I learn later that more than a dozen families from here, descendants of the Colla people, have banded together to form a sort of tourist association, with home-stays and tours and the like.)
Further on, you can see the big burial towers standing on a mesa across a shallow lake. We drive there, and start walking. Selma lags behind and rests frequently, apparently still beset by the altitude sickness. It’s a nice view back across the shallow lake on that side.
The towers are towers. It’s an odd, melancholy sort of spot, but less moving than some ruins we’ve visited. I shoot pictures of a few of the towers, and of birds flying to perch on the tops of the towers, and of towers falling apart, but nothing to write home about. So I won’t.
There are smaller towers scattered about, just a meter high or so. One man explains that a person of note would be buried in one of these, then they’d bury his kids around him and his servants a little further. He turns over a rock and points out the top of a skull, then another, and says they were children and servants.
The spot commands a view of a large lake, and we’re looking across at a big, flat island not far out into the lake, and he says his forefathers owned it and his aunt still lives there. It looks like a neat place to live. Great view and lots of privacy, I’d imagine.
Ragna and Selma start back toward the parking area, while I’m still contemplating the island the guy’s aunt lives on. Returning, I lag behind. From far behind them, I shoot a photograph of them walking and talking, and passing a local woman sitting on the ground, undoubtedly in order to sell them something, but they do not stop before they disappear down the steps to the parking lot.
In fact, she’s selling just what I might buy: the photogenic nature of her garb, her activity, and her companion. The light is good, the background would be good if I weren’t choosing to shoot such close shots, and I’m quite willing to part with a fair propina. (Would this post be more appealing, or portray me as a much more adventurous and genuine person if I were silent about the propina, and just showed the photograph? Maybe with some caption hinting that when the sun went down I had an affair with her, or at least fought off a dozen savage attackers while unearthing a valuable llama statue from a burial site? Probably, but I lack the wit. Sorry.)
I do shoot a lot of pictures, from several different angles, and chat briefly with her. The vicuna’s name is Jasca. He is six months old. His contribution to the conversation is an odd, high-pitched sort of mewing sound, more like some electronic gadget than like a cat, which he repeats intermittently, pretty much always at the same tone and for the same length of time.
Ragna and Selma are buying stuff to give kids in the family back home. I do a bit of the same. Across the lake the sun catches a house, and makes it look like a particularly appealing place to sit and watch sunsets.
We drive back out to the main road more quickly than we drove in, just as the sun disappears.
It’s a short drive on to Puno, but we’re delayed by a routine police stop [where I manage to have all the papers I’m supposed to have] and sit overlooking the town, with Lake Titicaca in the background, just after the sun disappears.
Thus it’s dark by the time we’re scouting around for a place to stay. The process is easier than before, though, because Ragna is above all a loving mother, and her daughter’s limited budget is a matter to be taken seriously. Thus we are unanimous in hoping to reach some more modest compromise between price and comfort, and that turns out to be the Hostal Margarita, a smallish establishment on a side street not too distant from the lively collection of restaurants and bars and other tourist services north of the Plaza de Armas.
I sit in the car whle Ragna and Selma go in to inspect and negotiate. Selma, who’s quick at languages, has been living in Italy and learning Italian, and Spanish is a piece of cake for her. so she bargains a bit for a better deal.
The cochera is several blocks away. The proprietor rides over there with me, to show me the way, and it’s a quick walk back.
Puno has a lively downtown, with a two- or three-block pedestrians-only strip jumping with discos, restaurants, money-changers, bars, and pizza joints.
Hostal Margarita – it was either S./ 80 for us and S./ 60 for Selma, or else S./ 60 and S./ 40. Smallish. Heaters for rooms available for a little extra. It’s close enough to be a quick stroll to the strip where the restaurants and bars are, but on a side street where there’s a lot less noise and traffic. Nothing fancy, but quite adequate. Breakfast included. And stated prices are somewhat negotiable if you walk in during the off-season.
Puno has lots of lively restaurants and cafes and bars designed to appeal to foreign travelers. We particularly liked _________.